Our warm winter means a bumpy start for winter tourism in Michigan

Dec 24, 2015

Taylor Ogilvie would really like to make some more snow. He’s the general manager at the Mt. Brighton ski area. So far, conditions haven't been quite right very often.

Standing at the bottom of one of the hills, Ogilvie gestures to the mostly green slopes. "We’re looking at a bunch of water," he says. "Kind of icy, snowy stuff that we put out of our snow guns last night.”

He says they’ve had a few good days, but for the most part, it’s been too warm and too humid for snow-making to work well. So they’ve just been waiting.

“What it does is it gets your demand for everyone to go out skiing, it kind of just pushes it all together, so as soon as we get a product we’ll be incredibly busy.”

He says they made snow all weekend, and opened up for one day on Monday this week. Then it started pouring rain, but some diehards got out on the hills anyway.

The snowmobile industry's hurting too

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is typically one of the busiest times for winter tourism up north. But not this year.

Bill Manson, Executive Director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association, says there just hasn’t been much snow in the U.P. so far.

"I’ll tell you what. It’s not very good. We got too much green grass and brown weeds showing yet," he says.

He says when they want it to snow in the U.P., they sing a special song.

"There’s an old Norse song called the Heikki Lunta snow dance, you can probably Google it. We need everyone to do that dance and pray for some snow."

Actually, a guy in the U.P. made up that song in the 1970s, so it’s not that old.

This year’s lack of snow is a huge blow for U.P. tourism.

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

Tourists spend almost $1.2 billion each year in the U.P. Bill Manson says there’s a big community of snowmobilers from all over the Midwest and Canada, as well as from downstate.

"And we come north on the holidays and ride and spend our money on hotels and motels and restaurants and establishments like that. So by not having us up there spending our money it’s a financial hit to the economy of the U.P. and northern lower Michigan."

He says it’s especially tough on small towns along Lake Superior, like Paradise, Grand Marais, and Munising.

Thanks, El Niño

It’s been one of the warmest winters on record in Michigan. That’s in part because of El Niño.

El Niño is a complex weather pattern that’s normal, and happens every two to seven years.

Warming waters in the Pacific Ocean end up affecting the air currents and the weather, making it warmer than usual over parts of the eastern and northern U.S.

Jeff Masters is the director of meteorology for Weather Underground.com.

He says the past two months globally were by far the warmest on earth since the 1800s. So, add El Nino to a warming global climate, and that can make for record-breaking warm temperatures.

"I mean, with a steadily warming climate we’re going to see a lot more record warm weather. And with record warm weather that means you have the potential for record sorts of precipitation events because warm air can hold more moisture and water vapor, which can potentially bring you heavy precipitation events," he says.

Masters says that could look like all that heavy snow we saw in late November or last year’s record floods in Detroit.

El Niño peaked in mid-November and the waters are starting to cool. Masters says it looks like we can expect some snow in late January and in February.